Remembering Ralph Emery, Country Music’s Preeminent Broadcaster (RIP)

It was the stars of Nashville and beyond that performed the music that made country music famous. But it was Ralph Emery who served it up all to the public in a way that made made it so easy for everyone to invite it into their homes, and into their hearts. He was country music’s preeminent emcee and its endearing uncle. Ralph Emery’s presence spans decades, formats, and generations. He was like family. And the loss that country music feels at the passing of this titan of broadcasting is no different than the passing of a cherished family member.

Whether you saw that smile on television, or heard it in his voice that was built for broadcasting, his enthusiasm for the subject matter of country music was rendered infectious. It didn’t emanate from New York or Los Angeles like so much of America’s national media. It came straight from Nashville, in the form of WSM radio broadcasts, the television show Pop! Goes The Country from 1974 to 1980, later Nashville Now from 1983 to 1993, and many other programs throughout the years. No matter where you were, Ralph Emery put country music front and center, while truck drivers coast to coast will remember Ralph Emery as the late-night disc jockey keeping them awake and entertained during those long hauls.

It was the rapport he kept with many entertainers that allowed Ralph Emery to get something special from interviews. They didn’t see Emery as a member of the media on a second tier from themselves. They saw him as an equal, while many up-and-comers were just as star struck to meet him as they would be some of their country music heroes. It wasn’t uncommon for artists just to “stop by” one of his shows unannounced, and time and room would be made. Wherever Ralph Emery was, that was country music’s living room, and everyone was welcome.

And it wasn’t just the big stars that Ralph’s platform was reserved for. On the contrary, Emery was one of the few in country music’s notoriously “hard to break through” system that would give up-and-comers their first big break. When then rest of Nashville considered Randy Travis “too country,” Ralph Emery gave him a platform on Nashville Now, and Randy’s first brush with fame. In January of 1984 while Randy was still employed as a dishwasher at the Nashville Palace, Ralph put him on his TV show, unsigned, and without a single. Randy Travis was shaking he was so nervous, but Emery told him, “Randy, don’t be nervous, you’re among friends.”

The second time Randy Travis appeared on Nashville Now on July 16th, 1984, he was still working full-time at the Nashville Palace, so he brought Emery dinner from the venue’s kitchen. Randy thought since he wasn’t famous yet, he would be expected to play something from George Jones or Merle Haggard. But Ralph Emery insisted to Randy, “Do your own songs.” Lorrie Morgan also found her first brush of fame thanks to Ralph Emery, as did many others.

Ralph Emery wasn’t just influential in country music. He was also a titan of American broadcasting in general. Dubbed the “Dick Clark of Country Music” by many, or “The Johnny Carson of Cable” by others, his programs not only inspired aspiring country artists watching and listening at home, he also inspired others to want to be their own version of Ralph Emery, hobnobbing with the stars, and bringing their stories and music them to the world. NASCAR driver and announcer Darrell Waltrip unabashedly claims that he stole his broadcasting approach from Ralph Emery. This is one of many reasons Emery was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2010.

Ralph Emery is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame where he was inducted in 2007. One of the hardest Halls of Fame to get into for anyone, to get in as a broadcast and media personality speaks to the influence and impact Emery had on the music, and from young to old. Emery didn’t play a partisan role in country music, making sure both young talent, and aging legends were well-represented in the country music diet. He even brought many kids along with his sometimes sidekick “Shotgun Red,” a puppet played by comedian and musician Steve Hall. The candor these two kept could make you forget sometimes that Ralph was communicating with a fictional character.

There were so many other productions Ralph Emery was involved in over the years. There was the Opry Almanac, which was a weekday morning show on WSM television (now WSMV). There was a late afternoon program called Sixteenth Avenue South also on WSM-TV, named after the Music Row street. Emery tried to return to television in 2001 on the FOX station WZTV with a program called Mornings with Ralph Emery, but only a few days after it started, it got preempted by the 9/11 attacks, and never really returned. Emery then made the move to RFD-TV where he hosted Ralph Emery Live from 2007-2015.

Born on March 10, 1933 in McEwen, Tennessee, Ralph Emery began his career as a DJ at small-market radio stations around Tennessee. He passed away on Saturday, January 15th at the age of 88. He is survived by his wife, Joy Emery, his three sons, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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